The highly anticipated ruling in Philippines v. China by a tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration was finally released yesterday, with the result overwhelmingly favoring the Philippines—at least the initial analysis seems that way. The real impact of the ruling will gradually unfold, as powers in Asia enter a new era of competition. Thus, special patience and calmness are required on all sides. There are three reasons for this.
First, we should not forget that for China and other claimants the issue of sovereignty is at the heart of the South China Sea disputes. The tribunal has no authority to decide on it and thus the ruling did not solve the core problem. All the current tensions stem from contested claims over sovereignty, the only way, as China has correctly pointed out many times, is to resolve the disputes through bilateral talks. The Philippines understands this point very well and this is why it should want to seek bilateral talks with China after the ruling. We should keep in mind that such talks over sovereignty would take a long time—perhaps many decades—to finally succeed. Patience is therefore necessary.
Second, a larger issue here is the competition between China and the United States in the South China Sea and Asia in general. As I have argued before, the South China Sea should not define U.S.-China relations, as the two powers have many other more important issues to deal with collectively. Indeed, it would be stupid for China and the United States to engage in strategic competition in the South China Sea, but we cannot rule out the possibility of security escalation in the region due to miscalculations and miscommunication on both sides. The good thing for China is that no power, including the United States, can roll back China’s actual rights and stop its activities in the South China Sea, including the use of its man-made islands. In the future, no power will be able to stop China from declaring an air defense identification zone (ADIZ). If China chooses to do so, it would be just like its declaration of an ADIZ in the East Sea.
Although the United States will likely conduct more freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, the real impact of such operations is limited as it cannot change China’s actions there without risking serious conflict. But the United States will not risk a military conflict with China just to protect the regional order and its allies’ interests in the South China Sea for a variety of domestic and international reasons. China has no intention, nor even the capability, to start a conflict with the United States either. The most important thing for China and the United States now is to maintain the bigger strategic picture in mind and clarify their long-term strategic goals.
Third, despite the media attention on the PCA tribunal’s ruling, we should not forget that international law has very limited power in real international politics. While all countries should abide by international law, we should not become too idealistic and try to impose international law on other countries, especially when international law itself is sometimes vague and unfair. As Harvard professor Graham Allison pointed out forcefully in The Diplomat, great powers do not care much about international legal verdicts and China, in its reaction, is not an exception, but the norm. The United States has done it before, and certainly will not hesitate from doing it again in the future if it finds good national interest-based reasons. While the PCA ruling is, indeed binding, it is unfortunately not enforceable.
In sum, while the PCA tribunal’s ruling is historical in some sense, we should also understand its limits in resolving disputes and maintaining regional stability in Asia. Putting too much hope in it will only lead to strategic miscalculation and ineffective foreign policies. It may even exacerbate security tensions that are already high in Asia. It is therefore now time to tone down our reactions to the PCA tribunal’s ruling and focus on how to maintain calm and stability in the South China Sea.